By David Sirota
Becoming a guinea pig is the unspoken consequence of living in this, the second Industrial Revolution. Whereas the human guinea pigs in the first Industrial Revolution were indiscriminately subjected to new chemical compounds and air pollutants from recently built factories, we are immersed in new light wavelengths, electromagnetic clouds, radiation, and pathogens.
Those previous guinea pigs were calmed by cheery slogans like “Better Living Through Chemistry” while we are pacified by the existence of alphabet-soup agencies like the FCC, FDA and USDA. But while regulators are certainly more reassuring than empty corporate slogans, it doesn’t change the fact that the long-term impacts of new technologies can only be determined over time. And that means whole populations become test subjects—whether they choose to participate or not.
The most notorious example is our widespread embrace of cell phones. As the first humans subjecting our skulls to close-range radio frequency energy on a moment-to-moment basis, we are a little like cigarette fiends in that smoky Mad Men era before the tobacco industry’s admissions. We are the guinea pigs who will show future generations whether this particular telecommunications technology is truly safe. Because being part of such an experiment is creepy, lots of people don’t like to discuss it— even though the scientific debate about cell phone radiation isn’t settled. But hey, at least most of us are vaguely aware that cell phone use might come with human health implications.
The same, though, can’t be said of other new technologies that are—or soon will be—as universal. For all the attention that fears about cell phones have garnered, there are plenty of other revolutionary technologies that promise to be just as ubiquitous but that nonetheless fly under the worry radar. Like cell phones, these technologies come with relatively little scientific data about their long-term effects and therefore they too are making guinea pigs out of us all. They probably aren’t going to kill us, and most will likely turn out to be safe—but we should be cognizant of the risks and uncertainties of our new relationships with technology. Starting with light.
What you are reading right now is not comprised of physical letters. You are just seeing arrangements of light waves, and unless you are looking at a pretty old screen, those waves are probably coming from light emitting diodes, or LEDs for short. This is a relatively new development. Up until a few years ago, most computer monitors and television screens were backlit by cathode ray tubes and cold-cathode fluorescent lamps. But now, LEDs are increasingly taking over the market because they use less energy and last longer than their predecessors. They can also be significantly smaller, which make them perfect for compact devices like smartphones, laptops, and tablets.
Save for the momentary political controversy over the incandescent bulb a few years ago, the changes in the world’s lighting have generated little fanfare. Most consumers probably have no idea any kind of market-wide changeover to LEDs was happening—after all, as long as the TV, computer, and smartphone screen works, most of us remain happy and uninterested in the esoterica of illumination technology.
Yet, when it comes to human health, not all lights are necessarily the same—especially those like LEDs whose illumination relies on different colors of light. More specifically, as a comparative look at a Compact fluorescent bulb’s light wavelength and an LED’s light wavelength shows, LEDs rely far more heavily on blue light. And some research says that may cause serious health problems.
For example, a recent study from Madrid’s Complutense University found that the blue light from LEDs can permanently damage retina tissue. That followed a series of reports showing that exposure to blue light can adversely affect sleep. Meanwhile, there is evidence that exposure to blue light affects hormone secretion and even gene expression. Exposure to this light may turn out to be perfectly safe—but it may take a generation basking in its glow to find out.
Technologies already more pervasive than LEDs have some experts concerned, too. For instance, few of us probably said much more than “sweet!” when we hooked up our first home wi-fi network and even fewer probably considered the potential for any health downsides. But as Swedish neuroscientist Olle Johansson told investigative reporter Christopher Ketcham, wi-fi is an integral part of “the largest full-scale experiment ever” because “24 hours around the clock, we allow ourselves and our children to be whole-body-irradiated by new, man-made electromagnetic fields for the entirety of our lives.”
Of course, wi-fi routers definitely emit much, much less intense forms of energy than other household appliances like microwave ovens. That makes them safer, except for one thing: most of us are only running the microwave in short bursts—say, to warm up last night’s leftovers or heat up a hot pocket. By contrast, many of us are running the home wi-fi network at all times.
Reacting to concerns about such exposure, the German government investigated the long-term effects of wi-fi in 2007—and concluded that humans should minimize their wi-fi use. The warning was based on the precautionary principle. The problem isn’t that there is definitive evidence of harmful effects. It’s that we lack definitive evidence that such intense and sustained exposure is safe. As the German government said, “all the research into its health effects has not yet been carried out.”
That precautionary principle should be observed most rigorously when we’re dealing with our youngest guinea pigs. Especially because education technology is now a fast-growing multi-billion-dollar business, as more and more school officials and politicians promote computers and tablets as learning panaceas. One problem with this was identified by the New York Times, which reported that “schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.” The other less-explored problem is that the technology itself may not just be failing to educate kids—it also may be fundamentally rewiring the brains of a whole generation.
According to UCLA’s Gary Small, that may come with unintended consequences. As the Associated Press reported in 2008, his research found that “when the brain spends more time on technology-related tasks and less time exposed to other people, it drifts away from fundamental social skills like reading facial expressions during conversation” which “may lead to social awkwardness, an inability to interpret nonverbal messages, isolation and less interest in traditional classroom learning.”
Many of his findings have been backed up by other reporting on the issue, most notably from The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin and “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr. None of these experts are Luddites. But they all argue that such pervasive interactive technology represents a mass neurological experiment, with society—and kids in specific—serving as the test subjects.
Further on the horizon loom technologies we know even less about.
Wired’s recent cover story detailed the imminent emergence of a brave new world in which everything becomes a smart device connected to a computer network. In this internet of things, appliances, lights, cars and HVAC systems (among other things) will be engineered with microchips that talk and respond to the network. Those chips require some sort of energy source—the most practical of which is, according to Wired, resonant magnetic coupling. In other words: wireless power, or “witricity.”
This technology is already available to consumers in relatively limited forms—you can find it used, for example, in electronic toothbrushes and fancy smartphone chargers. Only now, with the advent of the so-called “programmable world”, witricity will likely begin to become truly omnipresent, even though we don’t yet know if that might have human health consequences.
Why could wireless power pose a problem, you ask? Because of how it relies on energy-exchanging magnetic fields. This kind of energy transfer is no big deal when it is happening once in a while in a limited low-power way. But as IEEE Spectrum reports, “How electromagnetic fields affect health is a rich subject, both for what is known about it and what isn’t,” and what is known is that the kind of magnetic fields “required to send truly useful amounts of power over even modest distances would be above what you could reasonably expose people to.”
“Reasonably,” though, is the operative word here. With the rise of regulatory capture, the agencies that are supposed to protect human health often take orders from consumer products industries, not the other way around. That’s the thing: those industries often define terms like “reasonably” not in ways that prioritize health, but in ways that serve the corporate bottom line.
None of this is to assert that being a guinea pig is all bad. Like some patients who submit to experimental drug therapies, we benefit from many of the technologies that are being tested on us. As just one example, the telecommunications technology all around us may be exposing us to a bit more radiation, but it is also theoretically connecting the world’s physicians and scientists in ways that allow them to better collaborate and ultimately more quickly find cures to diseases.
And if you’d still prefer to opt out of being a guinea pig, here’s the good news: in most of these cases, taking precautions doesn’t mean moving into a cave.
You can, for example, pick up a pair of computer glasses that cut down on blue light. Or do what you can to prevent the computer from becoming the center of your kid’s educational life, at least when she’s at home. You could get a timer to automatically shut off your wi-fi at night, and only turn it on when you need it. Consider whether you really need to bring the whole “programmable world” into your living space in the name of creating a “smart” home—your dumb home is probably just fine. In other words, just use some common sense and take some simple steps.
It’s the same thing for protecting society as a whole—the public policies to mitigate the worst effects of these technological experiments aren’t all that complicated or expensive. For consumer products, it’s stuff like warning labels. For the schoolhouse, it’s a simple refusal to try to replace teachers with computers. And in general, it’s a willingness to both better fund regulatory agencies and to finally make those agencies truly independent from industry.
If we’re all going to be guinea pigs, that’s the least we can do to protect ourselves—and the least we should expect from those who are supposed to be overseeing the experiments.